BOSTON -- There appears to be only one team remaining in the NBA playoffs that can stop the Boston Celtics.
And that team is the Boston Celtics.
Take nothing away from the Miami Heat, whom Al Horford succinctly described as a "wounded animal,” given the desperate way they pounced on Boston in the opening quarter of Saturday’s Game 3. Embarrassed on their home turf two nights earlier, the Heat jumped Boston from the opening tip, building a 26-point first-half lead then withstanding the Celtics’ furious late charge in a 109-103 triumph at TD Garden.
The Heat have won only two quarters in this series but that has been enough to stake the team to a 2-1 advantage.
The maddening part for the Celtics is that Boston’s two woeful frames -- getting outscored by 21 in the first quarter Saturday, and by 25 in the third quarter of Game 1 -- could have been avoided. Or, at the very least, mitigated.
If the Celtics are just kinda bad in those quarters then they might be up 3-0 in this series. Instead, Boston has been impossibly bad in those two quarters and now this team's back is against the wall yet again.
The Celtics must win three of the next four games to prolong their season. There is little margin for error for a team that has been prone to lapses in intensity.
And that’s why Saturday’s loss was particularly infuriating. The Celtics dug themselves a 26-point hole and still had multiple opportunities to rally ahead, including rallying within a point with 2:40 to go.
Alas, the Celtics couldn’t stop shooting themselves in the foot.
Boston turned the ball over on 25.5 percent of its 94 possessions on Saturday night. Think about that. Once every four times down the court, the Celtics essentially handed the ball to Miami. The Heat didn’t even fully capitalize on those giveaways, though a 33-9 edge in points off turnovers is still a jarring difference.
The Heat were extremely active on Saturday night, recording an absurd 29 deflections. They certainly aided Boston’s turnover woes but the Celtics made too many lazy passes and were far too loose handling the ball. Too many times the Celtics left their feet without a plan, too often they tried to thread a pass to a cutter inside and the Heat would smother it.
Boston’s decision-making was woeful and too often they let errors snowball, particularly in that first quarter.
Combine that with a game in which Jayson Tatum goes 0-for-4 with three turnovers in the second half and it’s almost improbable that Boston even had a chance to pull ahead in the fourth quarter.
There’s a case to be made that Boston is the most talented team remaining in the playoffs. But, boy, do they hate playing like it sometimes. And there is plenty of blame to go around for Saturday’s head-shaker.
Tatum played nearly seven minutes in the disastrous first quarter and barely dented the box score beyond two missed shots and a turnover. He was minus-17 in the frame. Hounded again by P.J. Tucker, Tatum finished 3-of-14 shooting overall with six turnovers in nearly 41 minutes.
In nearly eight minutes of matchup time, Tatum did not score against Tucker. He missed the only two shots when defended by him and turned the ball over once, per NBA tracking.
More criminal was Tatum going 1-of-5 shooting when defended by Max Strus. Tatum looked gassed for much of the night and could never quite give the Celtics the jolt, even after igniting TD Garden while returning from a shoulder stinger in the fourth quarter as Boston rallied close.
Every time you think Tatum has put the “Is he a top 5 player?” conversation to bed, he turns in a clunker that leaves you wondering how he can be so dominant one night and then blend into the scenery on another.
Ime Udoka, who has routinely pushed the right buttons since early January, made a curious decision to start Daniel Theis in place of ailing Robert Williams.
After feasting on Theis in the 2020 bubble, Bam Adebayo’s eyes went wide seeing the German big man across the court in the first half. And no matter if it was Theis or Al Horford defending, Adebayo was far more aggressive than he’d been in the first two games of the series. He went 6-for-9 shooting while finishing plus-23 over 9:15 in the first quarter.
NBA tracking had Adebayo scoring 12 points on 6-of-7 shooting against the normally stout Horford.
As his starters struggled with ball security, Udoka was hesitant to lean on his backup point guards. Derrick White and Payton Pritchard played a mere 27 combined minutes. (They did not commit any of Boston’s 23 turnovers). Boston’s star tandem of Tatum and Jaylen Brown combined for 13 giveaways with Brown (seven) nearly matching Miami’s team total (eight).
Brown finished with 40 points on 14-of-20 shooting and his aggressiveness attacking the basket was a primary reason Boston surged close in the fourth quarter. Alas, the number that pops loudest on his stat line is those seven turnovers.
Too many times he fumbled the ball away without Miami really forcing the issue. He acknowledged as much after the game when he noted, "I did a s--- job taking care of the ball today. I’ve got to do better."
The Heat were practically begging the Celtics to steal this game. They let their foot off the gas late in the first half, allowing Boston to erase 10 points from their deficit and enter halftime with some buzz in the building after Celtics fans booed their team at times in the first quarter.
Jimmy Butler sat out the second half due to knee soreness, the Celtics shot 16 more free throws than Miami, and had better overall shooting splits (well, beyond the seven missed free throws). But it wasn’t enough to allow Boston to overcome its turnovers.
It’s wild how fast the playoff pendulum swings. The Celtics departed Miami dripping with swagger after their Game 2 domination and fans could be forgiven if they started checking prices on flights to San Francisco in early June.
With one disastrous 12-minute stretch, the Celtics now find themselves in what feels like a must-win situation entering Game 4.
Boston can take solace in the fact that these situations have typically delivered their best basketball -- at least that’s what we saw throughout a second-round triumph over the defending champion Bucks.
But there’s only so many times you can shoot yourself in the foot before you run out of toes. The Celtics are playing with fire because of their lapses in consistency. And the gnawing feeling in the stomach that most Celtics fans feel Sunday morning is the fear that Boston is spoiling a real opportunity to hang another banner.
Yet again, the Celtics have two choices. They can commit to locking in for a full 48 minutes, fight through the obvious playoff fatigue, value the basketball, and let their defense carry them.
Or they can keep tempting the Basketball Gods with their inconsistent ways and be left to wonder what might have been on this 2022 playoff run.